Elite Distance Runners: A 45-Year Follow-up

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Abstract

Purpose

The present longitudinal study assessed cardiorespiratory capacity and running economy of Olympic athletes over several decades to measure changes in fitness in an elite group during aging.

Methods

Twenty-six male runners training for the 1968 Olympics were recruited. HR, V˙O2max, ventilation, and running economy were measured in 1968, 1993, and 2013. In 2013, 22 of the original runners participated: three passed away between 1993 and 2013 and one declined to participate.

Results

The mean ± SD HRmax values (bpm) were 178 ± 10.6 in 1968, 176 ± 13.1 in 1993, and 168 ± 16.4 in 2013 with a difference from the predicted HRmax values in 1968 and 2013 (both P < 0.001). The mean ± SD V˙O2max values (mL·min−1·kg−1) were 78 ± 3.1 in 1968, 57 ± 6.7 in 1993, and 42 ± 8.9 in 2013. V˙O2max values based on the original body weight (mL·min−1·kg−1) in 1993 and 2013 were 65 ± 6.0 and 47 ± 8.1, respectively, which were higher than the measured V˙O2max values at those times (both P < 0.001). V˙Emax values (L·min−1) were 177 ± 13.1 in 1968, 150 ± 24.9 in 1993, and 118 ± 22.5 in 2013 and declined at each time (all P < 0.001). The decline in V˙Emax predicted (P < 0.001) the decline in V˙O2max (R2 for 1993 = 0.500; R2 for 2013 = 0.567). Running economy values (mL·kg−1·km−1) were 196 ± 7.0 in 1968, 205 ± 16.5 in 1993, and 240 ± 27.0 in 2013 and was greater in 2013 than those in 1993 and 1968 (both P ≤ 0.001).

Conclusion

Our data suggest that higher initial fitness in younger years contributed to higher fitness with aging despite an expected age-related drop in fitness. Also, older adults could maintain high levels of cardiorespiratory fitness as they age. Expectations for fitness during aging should be more robust, especially because higher fitness could bolster quality of life.

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